When Debbie Armstrong stepped into the starting gate for the giant slalom race at the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, many people considered her a long shot — but the American skier never doubted her ability.
“The general media was surprised. However, within the ski industry and on the World Cup, I was really on the rise,” Armstrong said. “I was there to win a medal because I was skiing that well at that time, and at the Olympics, there’s only three places that matter — that’s first, second or third.”
On Tuesday, Armstrong — who now lives in Steamboat Springs — celebrated the 40th anniversary of her gold-medal performance at the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
“Christin Cooper, my teammate, got silver, and Tamara McKinney, my other teammate, got fourth,” Armstrong said. “That Olympics was big for our team, and it was arguably one of the most successful USA Olympics of all time.”
The 20-year-old skier, who grew up in Seattle as a multi-sport athlete, was one of five American skiers to medal in 1984. She was joined by Cooper on the women’s side and Bill Johnson and Steve and Phil Mahre on the men’s.
“I made the team as a downhiller,” Armstrong recalled. “My coaches and my teammates didn’t view me as a GS skier. They viewed me as a downhiller because I was more with the downhill team, but my heart was with the technical team.”
Armstrong, who was a member of the national team from 1982-88, said she felt like she could win after landing on the podium just weeks before the 1984 Games when she placed third in a World Cup Super-G event.
“People have an immediate perception about me, and they project their feelings about a gold medal onto me,” Armstrong said. “It opens doors, and it keeps those doors open for about five minutes. After those five minutes, you need to bring home the goods. You have to be relevant, and you have to have something to offer now, today.”
The gold medal helped Armstrong find the cover of Sports Illustrated and made her an immediate celebrity. The attention also pulled her away from the sport she loved.
“After I won the medal, the spotlight was intense,” Armstrong said. “I was very aware that I was not a businessperson. I didn’t care about the business side of things. I wanted to ski race.”
Armstrong was able to navigate her way through those pressures, but at the age of 24 decided to retire and move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she pursued a degree in history from the University of New Mexico. She was also introduced to Taos, New Mexico.
These days, she spends her winters teaching Ski Strong events at Taos Ski Valley and at home in Steamboat Springs. Armstrong said winning the gold medal in the giant slalom at the 1984 Olympics opened doors, but she stays relevant today through her YouTube Channel.
“I am so grateful that I found Taos because there were mentors that helped me visualize how I could maintain a career in the ski industry,” Armstrong said. “And then the rest is history.”
After eight seasons serving as an ambassador for Taos Ski Valley Resort — and a four year-term on Professional Ski Instructors of America Alpine Demo Team — she moved to Steamboat to take a position as the Alpine director with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. She held that position for six years before moving to the U10 head coaching position for four years.
“I’m proud of the impact that I made at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, both as the Alpine director and the U10 head coach,” Armstrong said. “I think that’s an important part of the story and my contribution to the sport.”
During her time with the club, she helped establish long-term athlete development plans, pushed for the All Out trail where Winter Sports Club athletes could train and initiated the 2022 Olympic initiative, which focused on putting a homegrown athlete on the World Championship or Olympic team.
Armstrong takes pride in her time as a competitive racer, but also in her role as a coach with the Winter Sports Club and as an instructor with the Professional Ski Instructors of American. In April, that group will add to the Olympic gold medalist’s hardware collection with the PSIA’s Distinguished Service Award.
“PSIA is acknowledging me, in large part, for how I’m leveling access to people for skiing,” Armstrong said. “Not everybody can afford a lesson, but people can learn to ski through my channel and it’s free.”
Armstrong has joked that she is better known for her YouTube channel, Your Guide to Skiing by Deb Armstrong, than for what she accomplished at the Olympics four decades ago.
She has 71,000 subscribers, almost 300 videos and over 12.5 million views. She said the channel is a guide to skiing and shares insight on equipment, conditioning, how to teach a beginner and how to teach an expert skier how to carve. There are videos about how to ski the bumps and how to ski the trees.
“The interesting thing about my story is that I won the gold medal 40 years ago and I’m still relevant today in the ski industry,” Armstrong said. “In the Ski World, arguably, more people know me now and more people acknowledge me on the mountain today than they did back after I won. Because of my YouTube channel, I can’t go anywhere in the country on a mountain without people recognizing my voice.”
John F. Russell is the business reporter at the Steamboat Pilot & Today. To reach him, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.